Emotional courage

Emotional courage

The pandemic has forced many of us to slow down and take time to think. Whilst there are many benefits to this, it can also be quite scary; our usual busyness can shield us from facing important topics.

Last month’s article was about reconnecting with your purpose. This month, we talk about emotional courage – what it is, why people avoid it, and some practical guidance to help make it easier.

For example, if you have come to believe that you’re in the wrong profession, it will take emotional courage to admit that you want to change your career path and start something new. If your new plans are radically different, you could feel overwhelmed. You might face an initial drop in salary. It can also be hard to tell your family and friends, especially if they encouraged you down your original path. But – if it’s what your heart wants – it’s worth doing.

Another example could be when facing a difficult conversation. We can often feel nervous about potential conflict, or worry that the other person might become angry, or fear we’ll react in an overly defensive way.

A key mindset is to know that things are always going on which are outside anyone’s control. How do you sit with that uncertainty? What emotions does it bring?

What is emotional courage?

Here’s a definition from Peter Bregman, author of ‘Leading with Emotional Courage:

“Emotional courage is the willingness to feel, and the driving force behind anything that we accomplish.”

Emotional courage is valuable because it helps us take action on what we care about. It means being willing to recognise your emotions and act on them, even if you are afraid of the outcome, because you know that it’s worth doing.

In business, we’re taught to be rational. To identify the problem, make a plan and follow it. To ‘task’ your way through. This approach helps us to have a sense of control, especially in a world where so much feels a bit (or a lot) out of control.

However, if there is one thing that the last six months has taught us, it’s that we’re not in control! Trying to get control is ultimately pointless. Accept that our sense of being in control is only a feeling, it’s not reality. Learn to go with the flow.

Also remember we’re human beings, not robots. As such, we experience emotions. We can’t suppress our feelings, except temporarily, and then they come back bigger than before. Suppressed emotions get stronger – psychologists call this ‘amplification’.

“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
Peter Bregman

Just accept that you ARE an emotional being. Don’t get stuck in your head. Don’t bottle up your emotions. Stop thinking about what you should feel, and lean into what you actually feel.

Emotions tell us what it important to us, otherwise, we wouldn’t feel anything. So, my advice is to allow yourself to feel what you feel, sit with it for a bit, and create space for yourself to grow.

“Emotional courage is built when you take risks which make you feel things. When that happens, go really slowly and feel everything you feel, and act while you are feeling those things.”
Peter Bregman

Feel the fear and do it anyway

Most people try to stop feeling co-called ‘negative’ emotions. It’s natural. But no emotions are inherently bad. As Bregman says: “If you act boldly while feeling scared, you’ll be unstoppable!”

This message echoes the famous Susan Jeffers book from 2006, Feel the fear…and do it anyway.

In this 15-minute TED talk, another Susan – Susan David – addresses how we deal with our inner world, and how it drives how we love, live, parent and lead.

Having emotional courage expands your emotional agility, your ability to be with your emotions with curiosity and compassion, and therefore your ability to make values-based decisions.

As a leader…

Here are some questions for you to ponder:

  • What can you do to role-model emotional courage?
  • How can you use it to get to the root cause of challenges in your business?
  • How could you create a climate that encourages people to get in touch with their emotions, and use it as a basis for their personal growth?

Practical tips

Step 1

The first step is to slow down.

Notice what you are feeling, both emotionally and physically, and sit with it for a while to work out why. Maybe ask ‘why’ five times, as suggested by the Six Sigma methodology. But don’t sit with it for too long, or you’ll get stuck there!

Be open to what these responses are telling you.

Also get in touch with what your body is telling you. For me, if I’m feeling really stressed or anxious, my shoulders hunch, my throat contracts and I feel nauseous. You might have similar or different physical reactions.

Scroll down to the questionnaire below to help with this step.

Step 2

Know that we all feel emotions all day, every day.

Try saying: “I notice I’m feeling angry,” rather than “I feel angry”. This gives a bit more perspective for you to explore the situation.

Trust that your emotions are there to serve you, so learn to love them.

It can help to keep a journal for a month, so you notice any recurring patterns that will deepen your understanding of  what’s going on for you.

Step 3

Use your emotions to propel you forwards. Don’t let them paralyse you.

Decide what you want instead, and what you can do to achieve it.

Have conversations where you share your emotions. Show how much you care about things. Be aware that, in the business world, the art is knowing how far to take it based on the culture within your team and organisation. You’ll need to judge this for yourself – is it safe to express emotion? If not, what can you do to encourage a more human approach that enables this?

Step 4

As with anything scary, it’s important to start small and build up your comfort level and skill. Identify opportunities to practice. Take baby steps. Start playing with it. But do have a go!

Step 5

It might feel like two steps forwards and one back, but maintain your curiosity. Building emotional courage isn’t a skill to develop, it’s a belief in yourself and your ability to grow. So, keep going when the going gets tough.

Step 6

In three months’ time, step back and notice what you notice. Acknowledge your progress.

Step 7

Keep going.

Be kind to yourself. What can you do to take care of yourself? To ensure you don’t get stuck with impossible goals? To succeed and thrive? To feel happy?

You might like to download the calendar from the Action for Happiness charity – in return for your email address, you’ll receive a daily piece of advice based on their chosen theme for the month. This month, it’s all about how to boost your optimism. They also have regular speakers, for example, Martin Seligman talking about positive psychology, and the results of a Harvard study into the secret of a happy life.

You might also enjoy the books How to be Happy by Liz Hoggard and Dare to Lead by Brené Brown.


Which (if any) of these negative emotions are you currently feeling?

  • Frustrated
  • Angry
  • Fearful
  • Worried
  • Helpless
  • Depressed
  • Vulnerable/Unsafe
  • Add your own emotions here…

What happens physiologically when you experience those emotions?

  • Tension e.g shoulders, back, neck
  • Tight throat / loss of voice
  • Tired and / or lethargic (low energy)
  • Speedy breathing
  • Fast heart rate
  • Sleeplessness
  • Loss of appetite or comfort eating
  • Add your own reactions here…

With any of those symptoms, you might also need to consider whether there is a medical reason, and take professional advice.

Which individuals, types of people or situations trigger you to experience those emotions? Here are some potential triggers you may recognise – we all have at least some of them:

  • Loss of control
  • Risk of looking stupid
  • Risk of rejection
  • Being imperfect
  • Discord (loss of harmony)
  • Ambiguity and change at work
  • Job or financial insecurity
  • Status (your standing at work, in society or social group)
  • Add your own triggers here…

Once you’ve identified these, follow the seven steps shown above, and you’ll be well on your way. Good luck!

Related reading

If you found this information useful, you might also enjoy my other articles on similar subjects:

Next month

Healthy habits for wellbeing